What is a ghost gun?

Simply put, ghost guns are guns that can be built at home absent a manufacturer’s license. Ghost guns, sometimes referred to as “do-it-yourself guns,” are assembled by unlicensed individuals, rather than licensed manufacturers. Ghost guns generally evade all the regulations which apply to the regulated firearms industry. They don’t have the serial numbers and other critical markings required of licensed manufacturers that allow police to trace guns recovered in crimes and return stolen guns to their rightful owners.

How are ghost guns made?

Ghost guns can be easily produced from kits that are widely available online. These kits include a key firearm component called a receiver or frame, which contains the firing mechanism of the gun. These unfinished frames and receivers, deliberately designed to evade government regulation, are commonly referred to as “80% frames and receivers” and sellers of the kits used to build ghost guns deliberately leave them unfinished in order to avoid falling under the jurisdiction of federal and state gun laws that apply to fully finished firearms frames and receivers.

How do ghost guns differ from traditionally-manufactured guns?

Ghost guns are unserialized firearms built by unlicensed individuals absent the regulations in place for entities in the business of manufacturing firearms for retail sale. Unlike traditional firearms, ghost guns cannot be traced if recovered in crime and do not require a background check prior to being built or resold through a private transaction.

Is a background check required to purchase a ghost gun?

No. Sales of partially finished firearms components evade the federal background check requirement. As a result, individuals who wouldn’t be able to buy a firearm—whether that is because of a felony record, a history of domestic abuse, or even the fact that they are underage—can buy a ghost gun kit and make a gun themselves, with no background check and no questions asked.

Are 3D-printed guns ghost guns?

Yes. 3D-printed guns allow individuals with 3D-printing technology and blueprints to print gun parts at home and then assemble them into a functional gun. As with all ghost guns, this assembly can be done without a background check, and produces guns without serial numbers. Guns made with 3D-printers can also often evade detection by metal detectors and other security scanning equipment.

What laws regulate ghost guns?

Unfortunately, not many. When American gun laws were written, legislators assumed that firearms would either be imported from abroad by dealers or manufactured domestically by professional gun manufacturers. These laws were written during a time when very few hobbyists were capable of building their own firearm, but advances in technology have changed this dramatically. Ghost guns exploit the loopholes behind these assumptions: ghost gun kits are carefully and intentionally designed to come as close to providing the end user with a firearm as possible without actually meeting the legal definition of “firearm.”

California and Connecticut have enacted laws that couple serialization requirements with registration requirements: individuals who manufacture or assemble ghost guns must request a unique serial number from state law enforcement agencies and engrave that serial number on the firearm. If one of these firearms is subsequently recovered by law enforcement, it will be possible to identify and trace the firearm. New Jersey has gone a step further, banning unserialized frames and receivers altogether. While we laud these states for their progress on this critical issue, because ghost guns can flow freely across state lines, only a comprehensive national serialization law can fully address the problem.

How many ghost guns are in circulation?

Unfortunately, due to the lack of serialization requirements, there is no way to know exactly how many ghost guns exist in America.

Are ghost guns commonly used in crimes?

Yes, and the lack of a serial number make it impossible for law enforcement to trace these guns. Ghost guns have already been used in mass shootings by shooters who were prohibited from purchasing guns or used types of guns illegal in that particular state. Criminal enterprises are increasingly exploiting these technologies. Ghost guns now represent 30% of all crime guns recovered in California.

Is the COVID-19 crisis driving an increase in ghost guns sales?

Unfortunately, there are no official numbers on the sales of ghost guns. The National Instant Background Check System (NICS) reported a significant surge in the number of background checks conducted for authorized gun sales in March 2020. Giffords staff reviewed a number of sites that sell ghost gun kits and parts, and noticed a shortage of inventory, suggesting that sales have increased as a result of panic buying during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What does Giffords believe we should do about ghost guns?

Congress should pass legislation to prevent the proliferation of untraceable, unserialized firearms and firearm parts by closing the loopholes which allow ghost guns to escape regulation as firearms. This could be accomplished by expanding the federal definition of “firearm” to include not just finished receivers but unfinished receivers as well. This more expansive definition would require people in the business of manufacturing these receivers to serialize them. It would also require sellers to conduct background checks on purchasers.

Posting code for 3D-printing firearms online should also be illegal, as should the distribution of machines like the Ghost Gunner that were specifically created for the home manufacturing of guns. Firearms produced using 3D-printing should be treated the same as firearms produced using traditional methods: an individual should have to obtain a license in order to manufacture or sell 3D-printed guns, those guns should have to be serialized, and transfers should be permissible only after a background check, if at all.

Has any federal legislation been proposed to address ghost guns?

Several bills have been introduced in the 116th Congress to address ghost guns. In May 2020, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) re-introduced the Untraceable Firearms Act that would prohibit the manufacture and sale of firearms without serial numbers. In June 2019, Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) introduced the Untraceable Firearms Act, which would prohibit the manufacture and sale of firearms without serial numbers. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Representative Ted Deutch (D-FL) introduced the 3D Printing Safety Act to prohibit the online publication of computer-aided design (CAD) files which automatically program a 3D-printer to produce or complete a firearm.

Has any state legislation been proposed to address ghost guns?

In the past few years California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Washington have passed legislation that regulates the manufacture and sale of ghost guns. Several additional states have recently introduced bills to address ghost guns. New York, Delaware, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Oregon have all introduced legislation that would prohibit the manufacture and sale of untraceable firearms.

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Our experts can speak to the full spectrum of gun violence prevention issues. Have a question? Email us at media@giffords.org.